A bit ago, I read an article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell about the difficulties that young people face in a capitalist economy. Gladwell equated their big hurdle to rolling a boulder up a hill. Essentially, what Gladwell argued was that for any recent graduate entering the workforce, it has become a difficult process to gain that first foothold of credibility that can be parlayed into a long and fruitful career. Despite those initial difficulties, Gladwell posited that once established, for most it becomes relatively smooth sailing afterwards, aside from the fact that younger workers begin gunning for your spot.
The nature of the literary game serves as a perfect example of the truth of Gladwell’s analogy…
I myself faced many doubts about my writing ability. I had a professor at Beloit College write “Don’t make a career out of this” on an admittedly horrible short story I penned for his class. I wondered many times if I was only wasting my time writing fiction, poetry, and screenplays.
And then I landed my first acceptance letter from a competitive literary magazine, one that only accepted 13% of submissions. Mind you, the vast majority of submissions to that publication came from qualified writers with previous publications to their name who were submitting their best material. Despite how difficult it seemed before landing that first acceptance letter, since then it has been a steady and relatively easy progression of acceptances of my poetry and short fiction.
For you, perhaps your first admittance into the literary game might not come from a literary journal accepting your short work, an independent publishing house deciding to publish your manuscript, or an agent deciding to represent you—your first big break may come from winning or placing in a literary contest.
If most everyone chooses to go one route, that being the route of trying to publish their short stories or poetry or get their manuscript picked up by an agent or small publishing house, then perhaps it might be worth considering trying something counterintuitive like utilizing a literary contest to get your first break into the literary game.
Here are three reasons why you may want to consider entering one or more literary contests:
- It costs money to enter most contests. I fully understand that most people do not have money to throw around; however, imagine that you apply to five contests at an average cost of $20 each. For that $100 investment, if you win or place in any of the contests, you have just earned a major feather in your hat and can speed up the process of embarking on a career as a writer going forward.
- Few writers enter most contests. For many aspiring writers, the price, even as low as it is, is prohibitive. For established writers, only a handful of contests have “name recognition.” This creates a perfect opportunity for the aspiring writer hoping to make a name as many contests have only approximately fifty or so applicants, yet offer up slots for as many as ten writers to win or place.
- Contests grant instant credibility. Winning or placing in a literary contest immediately commands respect, making it easier for agents and publishers to take you seriously and opening up many doors for your literary career.
To learn more about specific literary contests, consider making a habit of visiting Poets & Writers. They have a page devoted to writing contests (+ grants and awards). Check it frequently and if a contest appears to be an appropriate fit, then take the risk and enter it!
What do you think about literary contests? Do you think they are a good method for aspiring writers to break in?